Sunday, 3 March 2013

Book review: Orkney by Amy Sackville

Orkney (2013) by Amy Sackville

Orkney is a short, exceptionally intense narrative charting the honeymoon of a strange, mismatched couple. Richard, the narrator, is a sixty-year-old English professor who is nearing retirement and working on a book which is to be the crowning glory of his career: a study of myths and legends about enchantment, and more specifically, women who enchant men. His new wife - a woman who, it soon becomes clear, he barely knows - is thirty-nine years younger than him, a former student, an ethereal girl with white hair and eccentric habits. Orkney, it seems, is her choice of honeymoon destination, and the lonely, windswept landscape proves to be a fitting backdrop for this tale of obsession and personal mythology.

Richard's wife is never named in the narrative. She is always 'my wife', 'my young wife' (how he loves that 'young'!), 'my little _____'. This is the first of many hints that this is very much his version of events: despite his claims of all-consuming love for her, her voice has no place here. Richard is, above all, a man of stories, and it becomes clear he prefers the stories he has invented about his wife to the truth of what happened. He believes, for example, that she was wearing a purple jumper the day they met (she insists she has never owned one); she ordered lobster and licked it from his fingers on their first date (she says he ordered it, and put his fingers to her mouth); she wakes him during the night for sex throughout their honeymoon (she infers that he is doing this to her). Despite his wife presenting evidence that contradicts his memories (fantasies?), he goes on believing in them.

The story unfolds slowly, with a chapter devoted to each day. There is a plot, of sorts - vague mystery surrounds Richard's wife's past, particularly with regards to why she has chosen to come to Orkney, and what ties she has to the island. However, for the most part this is a detailed, claustrophobic account of Richard's 'love' for his wife. There is no doubt he is completely obsessed by her, yet he actually seems to prefer her not to interfere with his thoughts, even as he treats her every step outside their holiday cottage with suspicion and jealousy. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why this girl would ever be attracted to Richard, physically or in any other way, let alone marry him - brief suggestions of the similarities between Richard and her father, a man who abandoned her as a child, provide the only semi-realistic explanation. But subtle clues scattered across Richard's narrative allow the reader to put together a different interpretation of the truth.

When I read mainstream press reviews of literary novels like this one, I often find there is a general consensus about whether the book is good or bad. While researching for this review, I was interested to come across two reviews, both from UK newspapers, offering very different interpretations of the book. Holly Williams, writing in the Independent, focuses on the obsessive nature of Richard's narrative, which she describes as creepy and possessive. Meanwhile, William Skidelsky in the Telegraph finds Richard more sympathetic and believes his love to be genuine. Does this disparity perhaps reflect how different reactions to the book might typically be in male and female readers? The titles of the reviews say it all, really. Williams: 'How do I love thee? Let me go on and on'. Skidelsky: 'Orkney, about an island honeymoon, enchants...' The absolute last thing this book did was enchant me; it made my skin crawl. My personal reading of the novel was that the reader was supposed to find Richard disgusting: if I honestly believed you were supposed to like him, I would have hated the whole thing, in fact I probably wouldn't even have finished it.

This book made me do something I hardly ever do: between finishing and reviewing it, I completely revised my verdict of the story, and consequently upgraded my original rating. The reason for this is that the more I think about, examine and analyse the story, the more I am fascinated by it, and the more I am convinced the author intended it to be picked apart in this way - all those hints, clues, double meanings, opaque references. (This is why I love reviewing books, by the way: if I hadn't had to think about my reactions so extensively in order to write this, I would have never have seen all these layers and meanings.) There is much more to Orkney than meets the eye. It is disturbing and uncomfortable, and completely subverted the expectations I had at the beginning - when I started reading, I thought it was going to be a cloying, over-romantic love story. The prose is, perhaps, a little too much at times, but I felt it worked because I could really believe that a man like Richard would think and write in exactly this style. It also evokes the bleak beauty of the setting wonderfully. Upon finishing this book, I felt a sort of relief, and was absolutely sure I would never want to read it again... Yet the more I look back on it, the more I feel almost desperate to revisit it.

NB: My Goodreads review of this book contains my thoughts on the ending. I haven't reproduced those thoughts here as to avoid spoiling the plot for anyone, but if you have read it too, I would be really interested to know what you made of the ending and whether you agree with my theory!

Rating: 8/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with spoilers!) | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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